Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies – Tara Ison

(Reviewed by JD Jung)

“Nine months before my fiftieth birthday, I am sexually propositioned by a thirty-three-year-old young man (…he seems so Benjamin-boyish)…The next thing I think, delighted, is “Well, here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.” I think of martini assignations in hotel bars and black lace garter belts and sheer stockings…”

However, when author Tara Ison first saw The Graduate, she must have not even reached her teenage years. She was in awe of Mrs. Robinson’s “glamorous self-possession” and wanted to become like her. She was too young to understand her pitiful character or what was really going on. I, on the other hand, was thirteen years old, and saw this woman as wicked and creepy and even scolded my own mother for wearing her hair pulled back just like Mrs. Robinson.  In spite of this, The Graduate remains my favorite movie of all time, and  must have etched a permanent place in Ison’s memory after all these years.

How we remember, relate and react to  movies says a lot about us.   Ison exposes a lot of herself in Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies. This book is part autobiography, part film analysis and is strangely satisfying in both areas.

In the first chapter, “How to Grow Crazy” , she remembers  at age 11, seeing  One flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and notes that it was  the most “brutal, cautionary thing”  she ever saw. See what could happen if she didn’t behave? Later, after seeing such films as Frances, The Snake Pit, and Suddenly Last Summer,  she had the fear of being unjustly committed.

“There is a thin, shaky line between being crazy and being inconvenient, and this is the penetrating moral of these stories: keep on being a good girl, don’t piss people off. … Be sweet to your mother; be nice to your father.  Look what a caring family member is capable of.”

With topics such as “How To Lose Your Virginity”, “How To Be A Drunk”, “How To Die With Style” (remember Harold and Maude?), over eighty films are referenced, many quoted and analyzed in depth.  Though I have seen most of the movies, I’d forgotten many of their specifics and my reactions to them until now. Was I that callous because  I didn’t cry at the end of Love Story?

My favorite chapter is  “How To Be A Slut”, where she realizes that romantic movies don’t reflect her personal life and choices…or is she just, well, “different”? After all, don’t  movies reflect our  current culture? In any event it is her most “revealing” chapter.

Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies will especially appeal to cinephiles in its film analysis.  As far as the autobiographical part, it’s not that anything extraordinary or shocking happens or that her life is that much different than many of ours.  The fact that we can relate to it makes it even more enjoyable. For me, it not only brought back memories of certain films but also my life in relation to them.

(BTW for fans of historical fiction, grab a copy of Tara Ison’s novel A Child Out of Alcatraz)

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